Report on Nuclear Abolition International Meetings in Mexico

 In Nuclear Weapons

aliciaConference Reports: 

Second Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)  in Nayarit, Mexico

 By Alicia Godsberg, Executive Director, Peace Action NYS

 From 11-12 February the government of Mexico hosted the 2nd Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in Nayarit. The first such conference was held in Oslo, Norway in March 2013. In all, 19 more countries registered to attend in Nayarit than were in Oslo, and before the conference officially began the government of Austria announced it would host a third follow up conference in Vienna before the end of 2014.

 The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) organized a civil society conference around the governmental conference in Mexico to focus on advocacy for a treaty banning nuclear weapons. ICAN is a coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with 331 partners in 80 countries. Their conference focused on lobbying delegations during the governmental conference to support a ban treaty and on what campaigners could do in their home countries between Mexico and Vienna to strengthen support for a nuclear ban treaty. More than 100 NGO representatives attended the ICAN conference, a few of whom were not members of ICAN and some not in favor of their ban treaty approach.

The ultimate goal of a nuclear ban treaty is to lead to the prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The ban treaty should be seen as the instrument with which to pressure the process of the elimination of nuclear weapons; it is a framework under which elimination could be pursued. Such a treaty would not have to be overly technical or include the resolution of complex problems related to nuclear disarmament. By contrast, a Nuclear Weapons Convention would require the support and ratification of the nuclear armed states to be effective and would need to address those complexities in detail. The ban treaty is a way for non-nuclear weapon states, all but nine of the international community, to take responsibility for ridding the world of nuclear weapons instead of waiting for the so-called “step-by-step” process of nuclear disarmament to make significant changes to the status quo.

As envisioned by ICAN, a ban treaty would be an international instrument making the possession, use, stockpiling, development, and transfer of nuclear weapons illegal. Banning weapons systems has historically preceded their elimination, not the other way around. A ban treaty changes discourse away from nuclear deterrence and focuses instead on the impact these weapons would have on people and our planet if used intentionally or accidentally. This impact includes unmanageable crises for the environment, infrastructure, international economy, transportation, health care, and food production. ICAN has not provided its ideas for the terms of a ban treaty, as they feel states are more likely to adopt a treaty they themselves have negotiated.

A ban treaty could be negotiated within the UN system but it will probably be negotiated elsewhere, as nuclear armed states and some of their allies are likely to block any nuclear disarmament treaty process in the UN as they have done for nearly 70 years. To cite one example, the Conference on Disarmament – which is the UN’s sole treaty negotiating body – has not taken action on any programme of work in the 18 years since negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). A more likely scenario for the negotiation of a nuclear ban treaty would model itself after the process that successfully banned anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions and take place outside of the UN system. How and where the ban treaty will be negotiated and the exact details of the treaty will be up to the negotiating states.

Most, but not all, in civil society attended to support ICAN in its call for a nuclear ban treaty. However, some members of civil society favored an approach to nuclear abolition through the negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC) in the CD. Negotiating a NWC would necessarily involve the nuclear armed states that have thus far been unwilling to start serious negotiations on abolishing nuclear weapons. The group of states known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) supports the NWC approach, which is reflected in their UN General Assembly resolution adopted last October. That resolution calls for the commencement of negotiations of a NWC in the CD this year and the convening of a high-level meeting to track its progress no later than 2018. One real problem with the NWC approach to pursuing nuclear disarmament is that it relies on the good faith of the nuclear armed states to negotiate in the CD, which has been stalemated for 18 years.

Another perspective from those at the conference who were not part of ICAN was that civil society should focus on the already established illegality of nuclear weapons and the existing international legal framework and law that has already answered the question of legality. This approach seeks to de-legitimize nuclear weapons through focusing on their already established illegality under international law, including the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, and does not favor the negotiation of any new treaty, such as a ban treaty. Attention was also called to the need to address the fact that many non-nuclear weapon states are economically and/or militarily tied to nuclear armed states and that within nuclear-armed states there are entrenched institutions and corporations that also have to be dealt with that a ban treaty does not necessarily address.

The government conference focused on some familiar themes, such as the impact of the 1945 atomic bomb explosions on the people of Japan and effects of nuclear tests on various populations. Some new issues were explored as well, including the risk calculation of nuclear use (whether accidental or intentional), climate effects of nuclear detonations, and sloppy stewardship of the world’s nuclear arsenals. Expert testimony was given by scientists, policy analysts, representatives of international aid organizations, and members of civil society. Of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states, only India and Pakistan sent representatives to the conference.

The governmental conference began with a panel of Hibakusha, or survivors of the 1945 nuclear weapons exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Their testimonies were powerful, as always, and reminded the delegates and members of civil society that humanity and nuclear weapons cannot co-exist and “it is our moral imperative to abolish nuclear weapons in order to secure a safe, clean and just world for future generations.” One survivor poignantly spoke about the inhumanity of reducing the deaths from nuclear weapons to numbers, as each number was really a person with a name and a family that loved them. Another called on nuclear weapon states and their allies to make a bold decision not to rely any longer on nuclear deterrence.

This presentation was followed by interventions from the floor, including from several countries where citizens were subjected to the fallout of nuclear weapons testing.

The next panel focused on the effects nuclear weapon detonations would have on our global climate and social and financial institutions. Terrifying statistics were given about the effects of a relatively small single nuclear detonation over various cities around the world – the kilometers of fireball emanating from the center of the blast, the burning of everything flammable, the radioactive cloud that would spread, the reduction of operational capacity to deal with the ensuing crisis (infrastructure, people, electricity, food, water, medicine, etc.), and the millions of people who would be affected around the world.

Another panelist referenced Reaching Critical Will’s report, Unspeakable Suffering, which outlined three areas of costs relating to a nuclear detonation: destruction costs in the area of the blast; disruption costs in wider society; and reaction costs, both political and economic. The presentation described how local infrastructure and international financial systems would collapse even with a single detonation. The effects would be severe and long-lasting and there is no real way to estimate the actual damage that could be done. That damage could not be reduced merely to some monetary value.

A climate change expert reported on what would happen to the climate if a moderate nuclear exchange were to occur. Smoke from fires would spread around the planet, absorbing sunlight and reducing the temperature of the ground, leading to nuclear winter and the elimination of the protection of the ozone layer. Crops would die and there would be global famine. With only the use of 50 nuclear weapons the earth would cool for more than 10 years, decreasing food production in that time up to 40%.

Another panelist talked about the consequences of Soviet nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk, which is now part of Kazakhstan. More than 1 million people lived within 100 kilometers of the test site, all potentially exposed to radiation from the 468 tests done there between 1949 and 1989. Their research found a high infant mortality rate and high rates of leukemia in children around the area, as well as a high incidence of cancer, premature aging, and decreased life expectancy. Since the early 1990s, the government of Kazakhstan has been helping those exposed by issuing them “radiation passports” to receive compensation from the state, depending on the risk of their area (money, extra holiday time and free hospital treatment). Over a million people have these passports.

Bruce Blair of Global Zero opened up the second day by talking about the risks nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence pose to us all every day. He talked about the “phenomenally fast” decision making time the president would have after the warning of a nuclear attack (a 60 second briefing and between 6-12 minutes to choose an option) and that cybercrime could infiltrate our nuclear control and generate false alarms or transmit launch orders to crews or weapons themselves, especially if someone inside colluded with hackers. His talk ended by saying that shrinking arsenals alone does not protect us from these risks and we need to reject nuclear deterrence as the basis of security.

The next panelists were from Chatham House and discussed the uncomfortable fact that cases of near nuclear use have resulted mostly from errors in human judgment and not accidents. There have been a “disturbing number of close calls” in which nuclear weapons were almost used, making the risk posed by nuclear weapons real and present. The presenters described in detail a number of times when one person or the intuition of a few key people saved the world from nuclear destruction. They also commented on the misconduct and sloppy practices of nuclear stewards that have recently been in the news, concluding our command and control over these weapons is not iron-clad. The underlying message of this presentation was that the probability nuclear weapons could be used has been underestimated because inadvertent use and accidents have not been factored into the risk equation. This means the probability of use is higher today than we have realized, while the consequences of use remain just as high.

Three international aid organizations also made presentations during the conference: the International Organization for Migration, UNDP, and UNIDR. All expressed that the multiple challenges their agencies would face after a nuclear detonation could not be adequately met. Assets and trained staff would likely not be able to be mobilized and the displacement of people would be unorganized and frantic, with no opportunity to return home.

Of the 146 countries in attendance, about 60 made interventions from the floor on a variety of topics. Nearly half that spoke expressed some kind of support for a ban treaty, and only approximately ten spoke out specifically against the treaty, saying “simply negotiating a ban treaty” will not lead to nuclear abolition. These countries were either part of nuclear security alliances or were nuclear armed states themselves, and spoke in favor of the current step-by-step approach to nuclear disarmament. Civil society was also allowed to intervene from the floor and ICAN was given time to show a short video they produced advocating for a ban treaty.

The Chair’s summary of the conference ended with this remarkable and inspiring statement:

It is the view of the Chair that the Nayarit Conference has shown that time has come to initiate a diplomatic process conducive to this goal. Our belief is that this process should comprise a specific timeframe, the definition of the most appropriate fora, and a clear and substantive framework, making the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons the essence of disarmament efforts.

It is time to take action. The 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks is the appropriate milestone to achieve our goal. Nayarit is a point of no return.

The day following the governmental conference ICAN held a debrief session and the general mood was that ICAN achieved all it set out to do and more. There were many successful interactions with government delegations, some of whom used ICAN language in their interventions from the floor. There was also quite a bit of international press in Nayarit, and ICAN received a lot of attention from various media outlets. One campaigner was able to get a group of states from Latin America to agree they would meet before the NPT Review Conference in 2015 to come up with a common statement regarding nuclear abolition and the ban treaty to present a unified position at that important event.

The final ICAN session was a breakout by region or nuclear weapon status to decide what to do between now and Vienna to advocate for a ban treaty. I went to the nuclear armed states session, which was attended by representatives from the U.S., U.K., India, and France. We discussed whether or not we wanted to advocate for our countries to come to Vienna given that so much progress has been made thus far without them and knowing that they would try to block any progress toward achieving a ban treaty if they did attend. The consensus was that we would publicly ask them to come but privately not encourage them to do so. This way, we would not feed into their narrative that they are trying to do everything they can toward nuclear disarmament.

We also decided to work on counter lobbying states that are dependent on nuclear weapons in security arrangements and to tailor our messages to different audiences (governments, grassroots, media, etc.). We agreed to share the things we learned about the risks of nuclear weapons use by accident or intent and to talk about the cost implications of nuclear forces and their lack of utility for military and security purposes. We also agreed to do public outreach with these different messages, even creating some messaging for younger people to use in the classroom. In addition, we agreed to work on building our allies within nuclear states, acknowledging that governments do not hold monolithic views on nuclear weapons. To that end we agreed to ask individual Parliamentarians and members of the Mayors for Peace network to come Vienna.



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Showing 3 comments
  • KevinMartin

    Great report, thanks, Alicia!

  • KevinMartin

    Excellent report, thanks, Alicia. I hope folks will take a few minutes to read and cogitate upon it!

    Going forward, an issue that might be useful for Peace Actionistas to consider/analyze is ICAN’s and others’ (including some states) focus on the humanitarian, environmental and economic consequences of nuclear weapons, and separately the instrument of a nuclear weapons ban treaty.

    The two don’t necessarily have to go together. The former is an approach to educate, agitate and organize folks to raise a stronger demand for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The latter is a particular instrument that may or may not be more promising than other approaches. Personally, I have no problem with the ban treaty approach, I think it’s fine to open another “front” in our struggle to Ban the Bomb, and while I think it’s interesting, I’m not persuaded it as an instrument is particularly compelling, it’s not an “aha!” for me. My consistent thought on this is I don’t really care about the instrument, they can write a treaty abolishing nuclear weapons on the back of a cocktail napkin for all I care, our main job is to raise the demand to remove the scourge of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.

    Another issue I struggle with is decontextualizing nuclear weapons from larger structures of militarism, racism, imperialism, greed etc. (which Peace Action doesn’t decontextualize, to our credit I believe). On the one hand, nuclear weapons are so heinous and dangerous they deserve focused, urgent attention to demand their elimination. On the other hand, I don’t see how the rest of the world, particularly U.S. militarism, remains as it is, just with nuclear weapons “deleted” from the world. I guess I just don’t see how you get there without significant changes/transformation of the larger structure of militarism.

    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this and whatever else Alicia’s report stimulates for you.

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